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ENGL 41A African American Literature

Basic Search Tips

SearchUnlike Google, library databases can't understand an entire sentence. So you'll need to break your topic down into the most important ideas - the KEYWORDS.

Example Topic: How does Octavia Butler's science fiction help us reimagine Black female power and agency?

The specifics of your topic will matter when selecting sources, but for searching you only need the most essential components. 

Keywords: Octavia Butler, science fiction, Black, female, power, agency

Research question "How does Octavia Butler's science fiction help us reimagine Black female power and agency?" with the keyword "Octavia Butler," "science fiction," "Black," female," "power," and "agency" highlighted

Most words have synonyms that mean the same, or very similar, things. For each keyword in your topic, try to come up with at least one synonym. Not all keywords will have synonyms, but many do!


Keyword: Black     Synonym: African American


Keep an Eye Out

Sometimes scholars use terms that you might not be familiar with, or which might mean something very specific within the discipline. While searching, look for unfamiliar terms or words that show up a lot. Try searching for those and see if you find more relevant sources.

Example of tools to refine searchLibrary databases have built in search tools. Try some of these:

  • Date: Limit your search to sources published between specific years.
  • Scholarly Journals: Limit your search to scholarly journal articles.
  • Format: Limit your search to articles, books, images, etc.
  • Subject: Think of subjects as official hashtags. Use them to find sources about that subject.

Look on the left of your search results, or for an "advanced search" page to find these tools - and more!

Advanced Search Tips

Boolean search using the keywords Black female AND Power

Use the operator AND to find only sources that mention both keywords.

Black female AND Power

This search will bring back fewer results than searching either keyword on its own.


Boolean search using the keywords Black OR African American

Use the OR operator to expand your search with additional keywords.

Black OR African American

This will find sources that include either word, so you'll see more results than by searching for just one keyword.


Advanced search in OneSearch using the keywords "science fiction" and Black OR African American

Use the “QUOTES” strategy to search for several words in a phrase.

"science fiction"

This will bring back results that only use that exact phrase.